Theater Review: 1776 (National Tour)

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by Dale Reynolds on April 16, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

2023 COMES TO 1776

The founding of the United States of America has always been largely misunderstood, even by its own citizens. Fifty landowners got together in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and debated for two years on the efficacy of declaring a rationale for Independence; they needed sensible reasons for breaking away from the mother country, Great Britain.

In 1969 a decidedly odd, but nevertheless highly entertaining, musical on the planning of this Declaration of Independence was produced on Broadway, a three-year hit at the time, followed by a non-hit film version in 1972; another-successful Broadway stage version in 1999, and in 2022, an entertaining, if even more odd, version which played Broadway last year, and is now making a stop in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre  as part of a national tour.

55 years ago, 1776 bookwriter Peter Stone and songsmith Sherman Edwards fictionalized certain events to create a truly moving show. The current co-directors explore how different the all-male, all-WASP, mid-1770s’ Congress would appear today if the congresspeople were more “woke” about electing non-white, non-cisgender males in an independent democracy.

So, friends, this is it: An incredible cast of (as described in the program) “female, trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming” actors challenge what we remember of the original eighteenth-century members of Congress. We are also dared to re-think with some candor how a modern audience will take to it. Fortunately, this is a strong singing and dancing ensemble.

Both the original 1969 production (which this critic saw) and the current one stimulate and entertain – a refreshing re-visiting of America’s tumultuous beginning. As directed by Jeffery L. Page and Diane Paulus, the emphasis on high jinks makes you want to get right up there with them and vote for Independence. However, the orchestra’s blasting (sound by Jonathan Deans) often overpowers even the strongest of the voices; this pointless interference actually distracts from the raison d’être of the show.

The casting is exemplary, so watching is never a problem. Led by Gisela Adisa as John Adams, the representative from Massachusetts who is often told “Sit Down, John”; Liz Makel as Philadelphia delegate Dr. Benjamin Franklin; Joanna Glushak as a co-delegate from Pennsylvania; Shawna Hamic doing honors as the delegate from Virginia (“The Lees of Old Virginia”); Oneika Phillip strong-willed as the Convention’s President; and Connor Lyon, who portrays both delegate from Georgia, Dr. Lyman Hall, and Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha (Lyon does a superb rendition of “He Plays the Violin.”

If there’s any one visual disappointment here, it’s Scott Pask’s dull and ordinary abstraction set design of the real Constitution Hall. The orchestra, led by music director Ryan Cantwell, caught the nuances of Sherman Edwards’ score, as well as ably supporting Page’s group movement and often-frenetic choreography.

This 1776 is an exciting and profound production, allowing intellectual and emotional satisfaction for both conservatives and liberals. Naysayers of either side who dislike the rare innovations seen here need not be heeded.

photos by Joan Marcus

touring production presented by Center Theatre Group
Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave.
ends on May 23, 2023, in L.A.
for tickets, call 213.972.4400 or visit CTG

tour continues; for dates and cities, visit 1776

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